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New Microscopic Motion Detector Could Find Alien Life

Swiss researchers have tested a new kind of life-detection device that's sensitive to motion rather than organic chemistry — and they say it could be used on future space missions to look for alien life. Closer to home, the mechanical nanosensor could verify whether a given drug has really, truly killed off cancer cells or nasty bacteria. "The system has the benefit of being completely chemistry-free," Giovanni Dietler of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, or EPFL, said in a news release.

The sensor is basically a 200-micron-long cantilever. The stuff to be analyzed is deposited on the cantilever, and then a laser scans the surface for signs of motion. Scientists say one of the common signatures of life is movement: Even small microorganisms vibrate in response to their metabolic activity.

Dietler and his colleagues tested the system with bacteria, yeast and living cells, as well as soil and water from EPFL and its environs. The motion detector was triggered by the cells' vibrations. When the cells were killed off, the signals stopped. Dietler said the technology is most likely to be used for drug testing, "but we're still calling ESA and NASA to see if they're interested."

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The research paper, "Detecting Extraterrestrial Life Through Motion," was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to Dietler, authors include Sandor Kasas, Francesco Simone Ruggeri, Carine Benadiba, Caroline Maillard, Petar Stupar, Helene Tournu and Giovanni Longo.